Far East meets West: Visiting instructor Ni Fen Fen offers Mandarin Chinese language classes at Mingus

“English is comparatively easy because you only have 26 letters. But in Chinese, the most commonly-used characters, there are 3,000. Then you need to write names, so it’s a much, much longer time to learn.” Ni Fen Fen, Mandarin Chinese instructor, Mingus Union High School. (VVN/Tom Tracey)

“English is comparatively easy because you only have 26 letters. But in Chinese, the most commonly-used characters, there are 3,000. Then you need to write names, so it’s a much, much longer time to learn.” Ni Fen Fen, Mandarin Chinese instructor, Mingus Union High School. (VVN/Tom Tracey)

COTTONWOOD - In an effort to equip youngsters for a global economy, Mingus Union High School is hosting an instructor from China to teach Mandarin Chinese.

So far, 43 students have enrolled in Ni Fen Fen's Mandarin Chinese language classes.

"It's a partnership with Chinese schools. We are trying to get our kids familiar with Chinese culture and language," said Dr. Paul Tighe, superintendent of the Mingus Union High School District.

"If you look at who the biggest vendors and purchasers of real estate in America are, it's the Chinese. We want to be a couple generations ahead," said Tighe, who initiated the request for language teacher.

The Teachers of Critical Languages Program (TCLP) brings teachers from China and Egypt to teach for one academic year at eligible elementary and secondary schools in the United States.

Mingus was one of only 23 schools nationwide chosen to have an instructor this year.

"We are honored to be selected," Tighe said.

TCLP is funded through the U.S. Department of State at no cost to the host school.

"All we do is provide a host home for the school year," Tighe said.

Ni Fen Fen is an experienced Mandarin Chinese instructor from China who also holds a Master's in English.

"English is comparatively easy because you only have 26 letters. But in Chinese, the most commonly-used characters, there are 3,000. Then you need to write names, so it's a much, much longer time to learn." Ni Fen Fen, Mandarin Chinese instructor, Mingus Union High School.

"I teach English in China. (TCLP) needs someone who knows Chinese and also communicates in English," said Fen Fen.

"This year, we have 15 Chinese teachers and eight Egyptian teachers nationwide." Fen Fen said.

Fen Fen -- who jokes that she decided to become a teacher because "I was young and naïve" -- arrived in July and underwent eight-days of training in American culture in Washington, D.C.

She says students at Mingus are enrolling in her language class for a variety of reasons.

"Some of them have been to China. There are some that don't want to learn Spanish because they are from Mexico or their parents are and they want to try something new. Some know martial arts and that's related to Chinese. One student who is Japanese likes it because Chinese and Japanese languages are related," said Fen Fen.

The Chinese language is a visual one, based on individual language characters linked together to tell a story.

She gave an example by drawing a square bisected into four equal quadrants.

"That's the character for a farm field," Fen Fen said.

Along with the different language between China and the United States, Fen Fen also notes different academic styles.

"There, we have homework for students over weekends and holidays. But here, nobody likes homework," said Fen Fen. "We make sure they have something to do but I am comparatively not so harsh a teacher so they don't get so much homework."

"In China, the students push themselves because they are trained from the very beginning at elementary school to get a lot of work done. Parents push them a little bit, the teachers push them a little bit and the system pushes them a little bit to pass the national exams to get into a good school," Fen Fen said.

Not only are their differences in the culture, but in the environment, as well.

The average class size in China is 50 students, according to Fen Fen, and air-conditioning is seldom on.

"We are more accustomed to discomfort in China," she said. "In America, the air conditioning is on all the time. In China, we use fans. We just live with that."

Transportation is a challenge for Fen Fen, who doesn't know how to drive.

"I don't have a car. In Cottonwood, it's not very convenient," said Fen Fen. "Public transportation is very convenient in China. Most people don't necessarily need to buy cars."

Perhaps the biggest difference for Fen Fen between living in the United States and living in China is the food.

"In cooking, we have a huge difference. I want to buy tofu and fresh fish and spices and certain chili. It's different here," said Fen Fen. "And the Chinese food here is Americanized, it's not the same."

Although Fen Fen is having to make some adjustments, she believes it's all worthwhile.

"The students make you feel good and give you fresh ideas. When I had my birthday, the students gave me some drawings and made me a cake," she said.

Fen Fen also has the satisfaction of knowing that she is sharing in her culture, and vice versa.

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